With some offices opening back up while others stay permanently remote, the pandemic continues to reverberate through almost every aspect of work life. Here are answers to some of the questions about COVID-19’s impact on work that have landed in my inbox recently.
‘We’re returning to the office. What do I do if my kids are sent home from school to quarantine?’
After most of us being remote since March 2020 due to COVID, my office is now bringing everyone back a minimum of three days a week, with a clear preference for us to be there more than that. But I have two school-aged kids, and if at any time they have potential COVID exposure at school, they’ll be sent home for two weeks. They’re not old enough to be at home by themselves, so my partner or I will need to stay home with them every time it happens. And I doubt this will just happen once. We could be looking at this happening regularly all winter.
How are parents of young kids supposed to juggle work and child-care responsibilities with offices opening back up and COVID not yet conquered? It feels like employers expect us to be back to normal when we’re definitely not at that point.
You’re right — it does seem like some employers have decided that they’re ready for the disruption to their normal operations to be over, and so they’re operating as if it is … when it’s very much not. Unless employers are willing to give up on employing parents entirely (or, more likely, mothers — on whom the brunt of child-care work still falls), they’re going to need to keep working with employees to accommodate circumstances like yours.
And a ton of people are in your situation; you’re not an outlier. In some ways that makes this even crappier, but in other ways it might make it easier to handle, since you can emphasize that your employer’s current policy overlooks a huge swath of employees. Talk to your boss and/or your company’s HR, point out the realities that parents of school-aged kids are still dealing with, and ask how they want you to handle that. When you talk with them, frame the conversation as if of course they’ll want to accommodate parents (which can be a highly effective posture to take when you’re arguing for something that should be common sense). And consider enlisting other parents to address this as a group, since you’ll be harder to ignore when it’s clear that the affected party isn’t just one person but parents as a whole.
‘Is it unprofessional to Zoom from my bedroom?’
I’ve been teleworking full time due to COVID. My boss recently told me that someone asked him to have me use a virtual background during video calls due to the background of my office space. I’m in a small den that double-functions as a guest room and my office. All that can be seen is part of a bed and the top of a dog crate.
Sometimes the bed isn’t made, and if that’s the problem I totally get it. But the email was phrased in a way that suggested even having the bed or crate visible at all was “unprofessional.” I know that blurred or virtual backgrounds are a no-hassle solution, but this still seems a bit insensitive. Management may be able to afford houses with dedicated office spaces, but that’s not possible at my level (and with the cost of living in my city).
I get having a space look professional from a cleanliness perspective, but this seems beyond that. Is any evidence that I use this room for other purposes “unprofessional”? What’s your take?
It’s not unprofessional to take video calls from rooms that clearly have non-work purposes. That’s the reality of working from home during a pandemic! Anyone who doesn’t understand that is seriously out of touch with other people’s lives.
Of course, some people are seriously out of touch, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic. People with large homes with dedicated office space need to be aware that not everyone lives like that or can afford to live like that. If you’re working from a studio apartment or a small space that you share with roommates, what’s visible on your Zoom calls is going to be very different than if you’re working from the veranda at your country home.
That said, whatever space you’re in, you should make an effort to make it look neat. That doesn’t mean devoid of all signs that you’re in your own home, just reasonably neat … which probably does include making the bed. But blurring your background is a good way to make all of this moot.
‘How do I take sick days if I work from home?’
I’m in a WFH position that requires phone use and rare Zoom meetings. When people get sick, they almost always just tough it out at the computer. I’ve seen everything from colds to people going off-camera to puke every 20 minutes. Where is the line drawn? Obviously if I was working in an office I wouldn’t show up with bronchitis, but what about at home? Wouldn’t management see you as lazy, since you literally just have to sit at home all day to work anyway?
When you’re working from home, taking a sick day should be based on your own assessment of how comfortably you could work. If you’re miserable, need to rest, can’t focus through your discomfort, or are otherwise not in a condition conducive to working, it makes sense to take a sick day. You don’t have to worry about contagion when you’re remote, but otherwise the bar for a sick day should be pretty much the same as it always has been.
If you’re concerned that your manager will think you should be working since you’ll be staying at home either way — well, you have a bad manager if they’ve given you reason to worry about that! It should be enough simply to say, “I’m sick and will be out today.” But if you work for someone who will frown at that, it can be helpful to include a mention that you’ll be resting or are too ill to focus or whatever else emphasizes “I’m not in any shape to work today.” (You shouldn’t have to do that! But we’re talking here about what will work in the real world.)
And for the record, this is further evidence that we have a deeply dysfunctional culture around both sickness and time off from work.
‘Can I tell job candidates my company doesn’t take COVID seriously?’
My team is hiring right now, and I’ve been asked to do one-on-one conversations with candidates to give them a peer perspective on the company and our work. I’m wondering how much I should say about our company’s cavalier attitude about COVID.
Outside of my team, my company has been really lax about COVID safeguards. They’re not requiring vaccination or testing, and I’ve heard plenty of anti-vaxx comments around the building. People are supposed to wear masks but there’s no enforcement and I see maskless people regularly, including packed together in meeting rooms without ventilation. Unsurprisingly, we’ve had multiple cases of COVID this year.
But my immediate team has been great. We’re all vaccinated, we mask, and we take other precautions. That’s what candidates are likely to see when they come in to interview with us, so I’m worried they won’t get a true picture of how things really are here. Is this something I can or should mention to them and if so how?
Please do mention it! For many people, how responsibly an employer has handled COVID is a major factor in their job search; it may even be the primary reason they’re looking to leave their current job. You’d be doing them a service if you’re honest about this aspect of the company culture.
You could say it this way: “Our team has taken COVID really seriously. We’re vaccinated and diligent about masking. However, outside of our team, the response has looked different — there’s not a lot of masking or distancing, and we’ve had some COVID cases this year. I’m not sure how much that’s a factor in your search, but I wanted to be up front about it.” That not only helps people make better-informed decisions for themselves, but it also gives them an opportunity to ask follow-up questions that might matter to them, like how often your team interacts with the rest of the company or how they’ve been handling remote work.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.